On Friday evening Isobel arrived at the Carlies to fetch Juli, who invited her into the house to meet Marion. Peter and Pamela were also introduced and Peter asked eager questions.
“You must come,” Isobel said cheerfully. “Why don’t we make a date now, Mrs. Carlie, for next Saturday? How about an asado, a barbecue, lunch? I mean all of you of course. I’m very proud of my little Tarawera, that means ‘House on the Hill’ in Maori.”
“Well,” Marion demurred, “my husband usually plays golf on Saturdays and now Peter…”
“Hey, Mum, I’d very much like to go,” Peter interrupted eagerly. “If Dad has a golf tournament, we can go in your car.”
“Yes, well …” Marion looked cornered.
“Why don’t you ‘phone me during the week and let me know,” Isobel offered. “It doesn’t have to be next weekend necessarily. But I would love to have you all visit me.”
They said goodbye. Juli humped her holdall into the back of the car and very soon they were out on the Panamericana superhighway heading into the flat farmlands of the Province of Buenos Aires. After a while Isobel turned off into a small, sleepy, flat-roofed town. There they stopped at a chalet and Isobel said, “This is Karl Bauer’s house. I must see him and find out how Ilse is, poor thing.”
Karl Bauer was a short, stocky, elderly man with bright blue eyes, thick greying hair and a strong German accent. He ushered them into the spotless living room of his home and told them quietly that the tests had shown that an operation was necessary. Ilse was sleeping, having taken a pill for her nerves. Isobel discussed matters to do with the ‘chacra’ with him for a few minutes, then she bade him goodbye and sent her love to Ilse. Juli shook hands and followed Isobel out to the car.
“Argentina seems to be a real kaleidoscope of different peoples,” she said. “I felt almost transplanted into Germany in that house.”
The night had closed in and it was remarkably cold and dark. “Winter’s coming,” Isobel remarked as she turned off the asphalt road they had been driving along onto a narrow unlit earth road. “Not far now.”
The headlights of the car picked out the single track, its bumps and hollows creating stark black shadows which grew and changed and fell away as they bounced along. Juli could just make out the fence posts on either side of the road but the land beyond was invisible. The moon-light behind the slowly moving clouds produced the most beautiful effects and the night air was fragrant with the aroma of grasses.
“Here we are,” Isobel said at last, stopping at a gate. “Your first job …”
“It was my first job at Los Alamos too,” Juli laughed scrambling out of the car.
“Here’s the key, sadly it has to be kept locked because of cattle thieves.”
With a bit of an effort Juli unlocked the rather battered-looking wooden gate and let it swing outwards so that Isobel could drive through. The darkness swallowed Juli up behind the car, except for the one red light indicating that the car had its brakes on, and she felt her inner self expand, gathering the enormous peace all about her into her heart.
“Only one of your brake lights is working,” she remarked as she got back into the car.
“I know, I must remember to get it fixed.”
A short drive, with tall eucalyptus trees on either side, led to the house which was a long low L-shaped building with a veranda on one side onto which all the rooms opened. It reminded her of Ana’s house.
All was dark except for one small paraffin lamp hanging on the veranda. It gave a soft yellow light full of shadows. Two large dogs rushed up in silence, their tails wagging and their eyes shining. Wendy greeted them with shrieks of frenzied barking from the car, but once she was on the ground she was as happy to meet them as they were to see her. A few minutes later Juan, a thin agile young man, appeared to help with the unloading of the car.
Isobel left him to it and led Juli to the door at the end of the gallery which led into the kitchen living room. She turned up the flame of another paraffin lamp and checked to see if the fire in the wood burning stove had gone out. Juli looked around with interest. A large table covered with a plastic cloth faced an enormous sofa with a faded cover which stood against the wall near the door by which they had entered. Above the sofa hung an oil painting of a beach scene.
“That reminds me of Punta del Este,” Juli said, nodding towards it.
“But in fact it’s Argentina, Chapadmalal. It’s by a painter called Witjens. It’s lovely isn’t it?” Isobel rejoined as Juan brought in their things, spoke briefly to Isobel, bade them good night and left. “I warned you it was primitive,” she added. “No electricity, bottled gas. The fridge runs on paraffin. Your bedroom will be rather cold I’m afraid, but it has a nice warm eiderdown.”
“All the same this room has such a cosy lived-in feeling about it, I love it,” Juli replied as she flung her anorak onto the sofa and set about helping Isobel put away the things they had brought for the larder. Opposite the front door was a large window and to the right a narrow door led to a store room where wood for the stove was neatly stacked. Potatoes and onions lay on the cement floor and brushes and brooms hung from a row of nails in the wall. Several rows of shelves acted as a larder A torch hanging from a string attached to the ceiling served as a lamp.
In the kitchen area there were counters with cupboards below, and also above, them so there was plenty of room for storage. Several little flower pots on the windowsill were filled with different plants and a potus trailed its variegated green leaves down the side of one of the cupboards.
Isobel drew the crisp white curtains, shoved several logs of wood into the stove joggling them in order to encourage the red hot embers to bring them into flaming life. She dragged a couple of rings off the burner over the fire and set a large kettle over the resulting hole.
“It’ll soon be ready,” she said cheerfully. “Come, I’ll show you to your room while we wait.” She picked up the paraffin lamp and led the way out along the veranda. Juli collected her holdall and anorak and followed her.
“There are six rooms,” Isobel explained. “The first is mine then comes a bathroom, then the Bauers’ bedroom. There’s a little hall behind this door so that the Bauers and I can use the bathroom without going outside. I’m afraid you do, but there’s a 1903 china potty in your night table which you can use during the night should you need it.. This then is the small guest room, yours, and there’s a big one next door with four beds. Then comes another store room at the end.”
Isobel opened the door and walked into the small guest room. It smelt slightly musty and a huge dead cockroach lay feet up in the middle of the floor. “Oof,” she laughed, setting the lamp down on the night table, picking up the offending bug by a leg, and throwing it out into the night. “What a reception, sorry about that! The sheets are here in the wardrobe plus an eiderdown and a blanket, nylon I’m afraid but they don’t collect moths, and here is a towel.”
Juli gazed round the little room with its low thatch ceiling, small wooden window opposite the door and uneven whitewashed adobe walls. The bedspread was a brown and white poncho and on the night table stood a candle in a candlestick with a box of matches in an ashtray. The wardrobe was large and decorated with hand carved flowers, leaves and garlands. “What a lovely cupboard,” she murmured.
“I bought two in a sale for a song,” Isobel said proudly. “The other is in my room.” She ran a hand lovingly over the carvings. “I’ve had this place for ten years. Fixing the house and getting the orchard and vegetable garden going have taken up a lot of time and energy. I had to have the whole roof seen to, the kitchen and bathroom re-done completely and tiles put on the floors of the bedrooms. I chose recycled ones to tone in as it were.”
When they peeped into the second guest room Isobel made it clear that it was really just a dormitory. “As you see, non-matching beds, chairs, chest of drawers and so on. Mrs. Martin’s grandson, Simon, is very fond of coming out here with several friends and ‘helping’. That’s a bit of a euphemism but they did paint all the outside of the house in February, I must say that for them. What fun they had!”
“I’ve met Simon. He’s Pamela’s boyfriend.”
“Is that so? Small world isn’t it? I’ll show you my room quickly and then we’ll go and have our supper.”
Isobel’s room was larger than Juli’s but had the same low thatch ceiling. By the door stood a large, battered trunk. “This is a genuine antique,” Isobel declared. “My ‘ex’ gave it to me while we were still married. He found it down south and had it sent up specially. It’s tooled leather, repoussé they call it; 1750 more or less. It’s terrific isn’t it?”
Juli admired it wonderingly, thinking of the loving competent hands which had created those beautiful designs in the thick hide with such artistry, and of the heart and mind which had guided them. “Two hundred years old,” she murmured. “It’s fantastic isn’t it?”
“I often wonder about the person who did all that wonderful work.”
“Do you? I was just thinking the same thing. I like your Inca-looking carpet and the two tapestries on the wall. It’s all lovely, I feel the house must be so pleased.”
“What a sweet thing to say. Yes perhaps it is and all. But I wish I could show you the Bauer’s room, as you said, it’s like a direct transplant from the Black Forest in Germany,” Isobel laughed. “Tomorrow you’ll be able to see the orchards and the vegetable patch, and Karl’s lavender of course. Juan milks the cows at about seven thirty so, if you’re interested, you can go and help him.”
“May I? Really? How fantastic!” Juli’s voice vibrated with enthusiasm. “At Los Alamos they bought the milk and butter. They had no milk cows, only for breeding, can you imagine such a thing? One might have been living in Martinez, Lena hardly ever went into the kitchen even. I find this little house enchanting. I’m aching to see everything in daylight.”
Once out on the veranda Juli did not follow Isobel into the kitchen, but stepped out onto the grass and walked into the darkness. At once one of the dogs rose to accompany her. The wide stillness of the night enfolded them as she breathed deeply and listened to the croaking of the frogs, the breeze riffling through the tall trees in the black surroundings, the myriad little night sounds, and thought of Los Alamos, of Dobbie and of the nights they had spent looking at the night sky after Marina and Tishy had gone to sleep. With a sigh she walked back to the veranda, noticing the wooden bench and the many pots of ferns and geraniums which stood against the wall between the doors. There were even some pictures hanging on the wall and three small pieces of sculpture displayed on shelves near the front door.
The kitchen was warm and welcoming. Isobel had lit several candles and laid out the food she had brought for their evening meal. The fragrance of freshly made coffee added to the whole atmosphere of well-being.
“Do you paint?” Juli asked as she warmed her hands by the stove.
“No,” Isobel bent and poked the logs in it. “I used to play the piano but I don’t do anything now. The stove also heats the water for our showers. I do hope Ilse recovers soon. An operation! What a nuisance. I don’t know what I shall do if Karl has to stay away a long time looking after her. They have no children, canary instead. Juan is good but has very little gumption. When he thinks he invariably does the opposite to what he should do.”
They ate their supper chatting idly. Juli washed up when they had finished yawning deeply as she did so. “I think I’ll go to bed, Isobel,” she said once she had done. “You don’t mind do you?”
“But of course not Juli. Have a shower since there is hot water. I have a lot of paper work to go over in any case.”
Juli took a hot shower and went to bed. She found it difficult to believe that she was lying down in the farm house of the ‘lady-with-the-dog’, that strange enigma of her arrival.
The following morning she was up well before seven thirty and Juan greeted her with a shy smile when she appeared, her hair tied back in a neat ponytail, to help milk the cows. There were three of them and at first she felt thoroughly nervous, they seemed so big at close quarters. Juan, growing more at ease, laughed at her discomfort as he tethered one of the cows securely, fettered her back legs and produced a small stool.
“This cow is very tame,” he said. “She is called Dulce. Please sit on the stool here and I will show you how to milk her.”
Juli squatted down on the stool close to Dulce’s bulging pale pink udder, and Juan gave her a small pail to hold firmly between her feet; then he showed her how to hold the teats and how to make the special squeezing movements in order to get the milk to flow evenly. After a few fruitless efforts a fine stream of milk spurted out into the waiting pail and Juli’s elation knew no bounds. With a few more indications from Juan she was able to milk rhythmically with both hands, squirt squirt, squirt squirt. The milk, hot and white, splashed into the pail between her feet and it began to fill steadily. Dulce stood quietly, swishing her tail now and again and gazing into the distance with tranquil unfocussed eyes, absorbed in her sense of well-being and comfort. She smelt warm and sweet, and her udder felt like velvet beneath Juli’s hands. The birds in the trees all around the cow-pen sang their noisy morning chorus with almost deafening vigour as the sun rose gently out of a cradle of clouds.
Juli walked back across the compound towards the house carrying her milk pail, an enormous sense of achievement filling her. To have milked a cow; to have actually filled a whole pail out there under the trees and the brightening sky; to be walking back now with the morning milk ready for breakfast was an experience she knew she would remember all her life.
The house looked very humble compared to the enormous eucalyptus trees behind it. Juan’s house was over to her left, a smaller version of Isobel’s. A cock, casting baleful glances in Juli’s direction, was heading purposefully towards the ‘garden’ near Isobel’s house with his harem of hens following him. Isobel had planted a row of flowering bushes in order to make a division between the compound and the garden, but had not put up fences. The garden consisted of a patch of lawn, a flowering cherry tree, and an attempt at a flower bed with a mixture of irises and nasturtiums in it, chosen because they were more or less ant-proof and chicken resistant. Isobel was up and bustling about in the kitchen. She had made flapjacks and laid the table for breakfast.
“It was wonderful!” Juli cried. “I milked this whole pail of milk. It’s full of birdsong and sunshine. I just couldn’t be happier!”
“You must be starving in that case. I never thought you’d wake up in time! How did you sleep?”
“Wonderfully, thank you. How lovely and warm it is in here, and it’s true I am hungry!”
Isobel laughed, pushing two ceramic pots with lids closer to Juli. “Eat up then, here’s our cream for your coffee and our honey for your flapjacks. After breakfast I’ll take you over to meet Celina, Juan’s wife, and the children. There’s a new baby and I know she’ll want to show him off.”
Celina received them in her small hot kitchen and showed off her infant son with pride. Juli looked into his crumpled face and black, dream-filled eyes with wonder. What would it be like to have a baby of one’s own she wondered; such a small defenceless little mite, so completely dependent on one for all its necessities. A sudden yearning flashed up inside her, the desire to have a child and to hold it close to her heart; her own child, fruit of her loins. It was as if her present joy demanded such a thing as its crowning glory.
Luisa, Celina’s sister, appeared breathlessly with a little girl of about two in her arms and a three year old boy clinging to her skirt. They stared at Juli shyly, their dark eyes round with timidity, their brown faces and bright red cheeks startlingly attractive under their tumble of black curls. Isobel greeted them fondly, introduced Juli, and arranged with Luisa to come over to her house to do some cleaning. Juan was free on Sundays so they were all going into the village to have the baby baptised the following day.
As they walked back Juli asked Isobel. “How will they go?”
“In the sulky, sorry, the trap, er dog-cart. I hope it doesn’t rain poor things. Taking them in the car doesn’t help really because it means I have to go and fetch them in the evenings. Well, we’ll see. If it does rain I suppose I shall have to do that. We have two horses. One for riding called Capitán, and the other, Damita, for the sulky. In that way Juan can get about without having to rely on Karl or myself the whole time. There is a minute village not so far away where one can get basics. Luckily he’s a very decent boy and doesn’t drink, so all is well.”
Isobel gave Juli a hat, gardening gloves and a few tools and took her out behind the Australian tank to where the vegetable garden was situated. “These are carrots,” she indicated. “Those are weeds. The lettuce you recognize. Those are cabbages, these string beans. You’ll have plenty of work weeding the carrots. I must go now and talk to Juan, to arrange the work for next week. When you get tired just trot back to the house.” She cut off two large crisp heads of lettuce and left with a cheerful wave, her blue floppy hat flapping in the fresh breeze.
Juli set to work with hoe and digger, weeding energetically and singing Beatle songs. Clouds scudded across the sky, at times obscuring the sunshine and giving the landscape a dappled effect. The windmill by the Australian tank whirled with silvery energy, its pump made an almost musical sound as it rose and fell regularly and the ice-cold water splashed into the tank from a pipe in a spray of diamonds. Buenos Aires was nearly a hundred kilometres away, there was no sound of traffic, or TV, or radios. She hadn’t realized how much she missed Los Alamos.
However, because of the war, it was impossible not to listen to the news and at lunch they turned on the portable radio and learned that the Malvinas Islands were under attack and that British soldiers had landed in the San Carlos area. Argentina claimed to have repelled the invasion attempt and disabled or sunk 70% of the attacking ships.
“So it’s war,” Isobel said sadly.
“But why, Isobel? Why? It seems so stupid.”
“I know, but who can tell the needs of humanity as a whole? This may be necessary.”
“And what of all the lives lost, so pointlessly?”
“But what is life?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. How can one be so sure that this, what we call life, is life and not in fact death? If it were death then to ‘die’ would be a release from death.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“No, I don’t expect you do. I comfort myself at these times by considering life as different states of consciousness. Therefore the stone has the least and the human being the most developed. A dog has no idea of my state of consciousness, a beetle even less. Is it not possible then that there may be other higher states of consciousness to which we can attain through ‘death’ or in some other way? One can’t say everything starts at birth and ends at death; certainly not if one looks around with true objectiveness anyway.”
“Oh Isobel. You’re talking to me in riddles.”
“But think about it. A seed has more life energy bottled up inside it than any plant blazing with flowers. Life energy. There you have it. Life is something separate from matter. We tie it to matter and say; ‘that is alive – that is dead – how good to be alive – how awful to be dead; and we put the importance on the ‘that’. But Life is an energy, not a thing, and it is the energy which is the essence. Not the word.”
“But life is … is life!”
“They say that hundreds of thousands of years ago the energy used for making things function came from seeds and not from electricity or whatever. Men used the life energy of seeds.”
Juli gazed at Isobel, frowning slightly. “And how was that forgotten?” she queried.
“Perhaps because it was wrongly used, such as now nuclear energy is being used for bombs and so on. It may have killed off the very people who knew how to produce it and use it. Don’t forget it took an electrical engineer to recognize what was in fact a dry battery among some tremendously ancient artefacts in a museum in India.”
“There are so many enigmas. True knowledge is so vast. Man is a far more complicated and wonderful creature than one can ever imagine. And he is alive and can think and remember. Have some more salad.”
“And do,” Juli said as she helped herself. “Man creates things, as you say, consciously. Animals don’t. They do things instinctively. But man goes to war and kills and maims. Man tortures other men as well as animals. Man …”
“Ah. But man also paints and creates music and writes poems. One can’t have Shakespears and Mozarts and Wagners without the Hitlers and the Atilas, you know.”
Juli remained silent thinking over what Isobel had said. The idea of life being death, and to die a new beginning, intrigued her. Rather like the idea of a chrysalis; a worm was alive but how much more alive was the butterfly! It would be full of butterflies here in the spring …
Other news on the radio reiterated that Pérez del Cuellar had given up his negotiating efforts, for the Argentine and British positions were poles apart. The wreck of a British helicopter had been discovered and denounced in the south of Chile. No bodies or blood stains had been found in the wreckage. The United States was sending Tanker ‘planes to Britain to free the British ones assigned to Nato …
Our American ‘friends’, “Isobel said a little bitterly. “I don’t suppose Galtieri expected this.”
Juli returned to her weeding with a sad heart. What of Dino and Quique and María’s brothers? It was so hard to imagine a war when the birds were singing; the clouds sailing across the sky playing hide and seek with the sun, and the good earth smelt rich and loamy as one pulled out weeds and made the carrot and lettuce beds look neat. Of course, the weeds were not having such a good time of it. She made a little grimace.
It did not rain the following day so Juan drove off in the sulky with his little family, all dressed in their Sunday best, and Juli and Isobel milked the cows and let them loose, fed the chickens, watered, weeded, tidied and talked. Juli returned to the Carlies in the evening looking windblown and very pleased with her weekend. She met Marion in the passage outside the bedrooms.
“How did you get on?”
“Super. It was absolutely terrific.”
“The British have landed.”
“I know, we heard it on the radio.”
“Joanie Trale and her husband have gone to Uruguay. They left yesterday.”
“Were they afraid of being interned?”
“No. Unpleasantness with the Argentines themselves.”
“Oh, Marion …”
The unspoken question hung in the air between them. Was it safe for the Carlies to have Juli as a guest? Marion smiled quickly and said, “There is a letter from Gavin for you which arrived on Saturday. I think Pamela put it in your room.”
Juli nodded mechanically, smiled her thanks and walked on pensively to her room. Should she leave of her own will? Was it dangerous for the Carlies to have her living with them? Might someone throw a bomb into their garden for harbouring an enemy? Might María be prevailed upon to let thugs into the house …?
Fear and rebellion swelled in her heart. Why should she be forced to leave just because she was English? She had had such a wonderful weekend and now all the joy she had returned with had evaporated. Should she become an Argentine citizen if she was so determined to stay? But who would know of that decision? The persons who threw the bomb, if they did, would still be qualifying her as an ‘Inglesa’. Should she go? But where? Rita’s? Hardly! A hotel? Isobel? Some French people or Danes or Germans where her fairness would be connected to them …? How infuriating to be so fair, so English looking. If only her hair were dark! But she could change that. She could dye it. Laughter suddenly bubbled up inside her. Joanie Trale goes to Uruguay. Juli Lane dyes her hair. Crazy, crazy.
Gavin’s letter was propped up on her night table. Curious, Juli picked it up and opened it .
‘Ma Chèrie,’ she read. ‘I have just read your long letter written from Marion and Arthur’s. I am so sorry about your having to leave Los Alamos in that way, but at least it’s good to know that you are safe and sound at the Carlies. I found your solution to my problem about the best that could be under the circumstances. Of course I knew of Dad’s adventures. Of course I would connect them to my mother’s death. If Hernán gets a decent education then my lacerated soul will feel easier. I cannot tell you the inner revolution which the knowledge that he is my half brother has caused me. I am also gored by the question of inheritance. But if I say anything I ruin the ‘status quo’. Hernán knows nothing and is happy in his school. Why interfere? That is his destiny. Why are our destinies so different? How come I am so closely bound to him and yet we belong to different worlds? And then there is Toffy. We all have the same father, joined by the same blood. What does one do? What should one do?
The questions tear my heart. There are times when I feel good, tolerant, magnanimous, wise; others when I feel anything but, when I’m consumed with fury, doubts, anxiety, you know what I mean. Dearest Juli, I cannot tell you how much I owe you. When I am spinning off on one reel the memory of you draws me back to my centre. Believe it or not I have had you on my mind constantly since I returned. I find you in my dreams; I have snaps of you pinned up in my kitchenette; I keep thinking – I must tell Juli this … or that…
What is this all about? It’s the first time someone has become so entangled in my innermost life and I have only one question.
Will you, Juli chèrie, be my wife?
I simply cannot envisage sharing my life with anybody else; you are there, present in my heart, all the time. I long to have you near me. I can imagine our children, our life together. I feel I understand you and can make you happy. Life here in France has lost a lot of its enchantment since I returned and left you behind.
Juli, my dearest, please say yes. The distance between us unbalances me, my longing to be with you, to speak to you is disturbing my work and my sleep. Sweet heart, phone me and tell me ‘yes’. Let’s fix up something, even a trial run if you feel shy of making a definite decision. I know you, with all those South American adventures filling your heart with stars you won’t much like the idea of being tied down. But we could have those adventures together, it’s so much more fun than travelling alone.
Juli, this is a burning love letter written by a tongue-tied Argentine of British descent. Love me. Please, please love me.
I love you. Gavin.’
Juli’s hands fell to her lap and she stared down at the letter with astonishment, feeling as if a whole bag of fireworks had exploded in her heart. Gavin, in love with her! Wanting her to be his wife! Did she love him? Could she come to care for him as he cared for her? Marry him? Live with him?
Marry Gavin and live in France, or here, under the lovely Argentine skies, and the Southern Cross with fresh south winds and glorious sunsets, with all South America at their doorstep? Have her own home, her own children, her own man. Build a home and a family truly, the way she had so often dreamed. She thought of Juan and Celina and their three children, especially the baby, and imagined herself pregnant.
She picked up the letter and read it through once more and then for a third time. Each time she did so the caress of his words filled her with joy and made her feel loved and needed. “If I marry him I shall become an Argentine,” she thought fleetingly.
But did she want to marry him?
She conjured him up in her mind’s eye, so neat, so quiet, so observant. His hair, his hands … The memory of the flame from his cigarette lighter illuminating his face and then the sweet unmistakable aroma of marihuana as he exhaled, rose in her mind. But if he wanted to get married … have children … he would give that up. He himself had said that he was not addicted. His attitude until now had been ‘why not’? Now he had his answer, ‘because it can affect …’
“Juli, supper.” Tony’s voice cut through her thoughts. With a start she came to and hastily changed, brushed her hair and went to wash her hands.
The family usually ate in the kitchen on Sunday evenings and was already assembled there when Juli appeared. Tony was about to open a bottle of wine as the others took their places round the kitchen table. Arthur, glancing at Juli, said, “Juli dear, you look as if you have swallowed the sun. What’s happened to you?”
Everyone looked at her and Juli blushed deeply, flicked her hair back from her face and said, a little breathlessly, “I’ve just read my letter from Gavin. He’s asked me to marry him.”